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Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete: The 1968 Olympic Protests and Their Aftermath

Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete: The 1968 Olympic Protests and Their Aftermath

by Douglas Hartmann

Ever since 1968 a single iconic image of race in American sport has remained indelibly etched on our collective memory: sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos accepting medals at the Mexico City Olympics with their black-gloved fists raised and heads bowed. But what inspired their protest? What happened after they stepped down from the podium? And how did their


Ever since 1968 a single iconic image of race in American sport has remained indelibly etched on our collective memory: sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos accepting medals at the Mexico City Olympics with their black-gloved fists raised and heads bowed. But what inspired their protest? What happened after they stepped down from the podium? And how did their gesture impact racial inequalities?

Drawing on extensive archival research and newly gathered oral histories, Douglas Hartmann sets out to answer these questions, reconsidering this pivotal event in the history of American sport. He places Smith and Carlos within the broader context of the civil rights movement and the controversial revolt of the black athlete. Although the movement drew widespread criticism, it also led to fundamental reforms in the organizational structure of American amateur athletics. Moving from historical narrative to cultural analysis, Hartmann explores what we can learn about the complex relations between race and sport in contemporary America from this episode and its aftermath.

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Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete

By Douglas Hartmann
Copyright © 2003 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-31856-1

Chapter One
Unforgettable Fists

There's somethin' happenin' here, what it is ain't exactly clear. * * * Young people speakin' their minds Getting so much resistance from behind. I think it's time we stop, hey, what's that sound? Everybody look what's going down. "For What It's Worth," Steven Stills, for the band Buffalo Springfield (1966)

It begins, in this version at least, with a race, a simple footrace.

Entering the Games of the nineteenth Olympiad, the men's 200-meter dash seemed destined to make history-a race, as the old sports cliché goes, for the ages. Tommie Smith was the favorite according to most knowledgeable observers at the time. Smith-the Jesse Owens or Carl Lewis of his day, when track and field was still a major American sport-held eleven world records both indoors and out, at distances up to 400 meters, and he had once long jumped 25 feet, 11 inches. And for all of this, the 200 meters was his specialty, the distance at which he reigned as world champion. Yet Smith was to receive a serious challenge from John Carlos, his collegiate teammate at San Jose State. Though a relative newcomer to the international scene, Carlos had beaten Smith for the first time only a month earlier at the U.S. Olympic trials, clocking a world-record time of 19.7 seconds in the process (a record never officially recognized because Carlos was wearing "brush spike" shoes, a short-lived innovation that, though never shown to aid runners unfairly, was ruled illegal at the time). So clear was the athletic brilliance of these two sprinters that the Chicago Tribune proclaimed that regardless of the outcome of their personal battle, there was "no question that the United States would be represented by the greatest 200-meter team in its history"-no small assertion considering that the United States had dominated the event since it was first run in 1900, winning eleven of fourteen times and capturing twenty-nine of the forty-two total awarded medals. Making the contest even more captivating were the personal differences that distinguished the two athletes. Although both came from poor black families and now ran out of coach Bud Winter's "speed city" in San Jose, they were otherwise a study in contrasts. Smith was from California, Carlos from Harlem; Smith was the calm, cool, hardworking, and graceful veteran; Carlos the cocky, brash, hugely talented and yet notoriously unpredictable upstart. It was to be a classic duel. But even in view of all this hype, hyperbole, and intrigue, few could have predicted the kind of history this event would make.

By all accounts, the race itself was glorious (as were so many of the track-and-field performances in Mexico City's high altitude: an astonishing fifteen world records were broken in track and field alone, including Bob Beamon's miraculous 29-foot long jump). Smith and Carlos were assigned side-by-side lanes. Smith, who had taken no practice starts to avoid aggravating a severe hamstring pull he had sustained in a qualifying heat just two hours prior to the final, came out of the blocks gingerly, not knowing for sure whether he would even be able to complete the race, much less compete with Carlos. Next to Smith in lane four, Carlos came away from the start perfectly and rounded the turn holding a full meter and a half lead on Smith and the rest of the field. But Smith, who was using short, quick strides around the turn to keep pressure off his injured inside leg, appeared to be gaining confidence. He closed rapidly on his front-running teammate and then, with 60 meters to go, Smith burst by Carlos on the strength of a powerful and familiar kick-his fabled "Tommie-Jets." From there, Smith was a sight to behold: his long, smooth, classic sprinter's stride carried him gracefully, forcefully-beautifully-across the track. Even to see the race on tape today one cannot help but be struck by the sheer aesthetic brilliance that some consider the raison d'etre of high performance sport. Smith's victory, in fact, was almost anticlimactic: he won so decisively that even before he broke the tape he was smiling and waving in a jubilant, euphoric celebration that may, some have claimed, have cost him the greatest 200-meter time ever. Meanwhile on his right, Carlos had to settle for third place. When he turned his head to watch Smith go by, Carlos was surprisingly overtaken by the Australian Peter Norman, who, like Smith, had run the race of his life. The official result showed that Smith had won the race in a new official world-record time of 19.8 seconds, with Norman and Carlos finishing second and third respectively with identical times of 20 seconds flat. "It was a fine race, one that Smith could be proud of," Sports Illustrated commented, but not what he would be remembered for. Instead, the magazine correctly predicted, Smith "will be remembered for what happened next"-that is, what happened during the victory ceremony shortly thereafter.

Immediately after the race, according to the standard practice of the time, the runners were taken to their dressing rooms underneath the stadium to await the presentation of their medals. It was there, in dungeon-like confines, that Smith produced the black gloves that would serve as the focal point of the gesture that was to follow. Giving Carlos the left-handed glove and keeping the right one for himself, Smith explained to Carlos what he wanted them to do and what it would stand for. He stressed, above all else, the gravity of what was to happen: "The national anthem is a sacred song to me," he said. "This can't be sloppy. It has to be clean and abrupt." The two Americans also gave a button reading the "Olympic Project for Human Rights" to the Australian Norman who, after having been privy to these deliberations, wanted to show solidarity with their cause. And everything was set for their victory ceremony.

As dictated by established Olympic protocol and practice, the three athletes were led across the stadium infield by the awards presenters, three young Mexican women in embroidered native dress and a group of senior representatives of the appropriate international sports organizations. The Americans mounted the awards podium clad in sweat suits and black stocking feet and carrying white-soled Puma sneakers. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck, Carlos a string of African-style beads. Both men (along with the Australian) displayed their OPHR buttons. Presiding over the ceremony was the president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, Lord Burghley, the marquess of Exeter. The marquess, the 1924 Olympic 400-meter hurdles champion later made famous as a composite character in the film Chariots of Fire, had requested that he present these medals in order to personally honor Smith as the greatest long sprinter who had ever lived. Years later, in fact, Smith would recall that the warmth and peace radiated by this man (whom he mistakenly identified as the Irishman Lord Killanin, the future president of the IOC) helped him to compose himself for what was to come. Along with his gold medal, the IOC official presented Smith a box with an olive tree sapling inside, an ancient emblem of peace, which the sprinter smoothly accepted into his own symbolic space. And then it was time. The "Star-Spangled Banner" began and the stars and stripes of the United States flag were lifted upward to honor the nation of the Olympic champion. In a stark break with convention, however, Smith and Carlos thrust black-gloved fists-Smith his right, Carlos his left-above lowered eyes and bowed heads.

Protocol, custom, and fear demand that everyone-strangers, rivals, and enemies as much as countrymen and teammates-rise and remain silent and respectful for the duration of the anthem. Thus, as Olympic scholar John MacAloon has observed, the entire ritual company, even the stunned Lord Burghley, had no choice but to stand at formal attention, as if nothing unusual were happening, for the full ninety seconds of the American national anthem. And yet, obviously, something extraordinary was happening. In this moment was born one of the most vibrant and poignant images ever generated by that international spectacle of symbolism and myth-making we call the Olympic Games. In its aftermath, Smith gave a brief but powerful explanation of the meaning of these symbols and of his and Carlos's actions. It was an explanation that would be reprinted many times after it first appeared in The Revolt of the Black Athlete (1969).

My raised right hand stood for the power in black America. Carlos's raised left hand stood for the unity of black America. Together they formed an arch of unity and power. The black scarf around my neck stood for black pride. The black socks with no shoes stood for black poverty in racist America. The totality of our effort was the regaining of black dignity.

Smith would not talk publicly about this moment again for more than twenty years. But over the course of those years, the image he had helped to engineer would come, for American audiences and many others around the globe, to define the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and, in many ways, to transcend sport itself.

Making Sense of an Icon

In 1968 the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the Democratic national convention in Chicago and riots in many other cities (including the student uprisings in Paris, troops rolling into Czechoslovakia, and both in Mexico itself) produced many vivid images and powerful historical icons. Yet the image of Smith and Carlos's victory-stand demonstration was reported with and has been remembered amid all of them. Within two days, Smith and Carlos's gesture was pictured on the front page (not the sports page, the front page) of newspapers across the United States and around the world. And still today, more than a third-century later, references to this image appear-a paragraph here, a sentence or two there, or more often than not just the photograph itself-with a surprising degree of regularity in a wide variety of contexts.

Pictures of Smith and Carlos have been used to illustrate American high school history textbooks (see, for example, Linden, Brink, and Huntington 1986), and posters of the image have provided inspiration and strength for generations of college students. The image of these two athletes has long been an object of reflection for artists, whether as the basis for the "civil rights" creations of Chicago-based Alanzo Parham or as an example of the more overtly political African American aesthetic practiced by Murray DePillars. Smith, Carlos, and their fists were emblazoned next to Malcolm X's picture on the "By Any Means" T-shirts and sweatshirts popularized by several Spike Lee films in the late 1980s, and a few years later Hollywood's Oliver Stone seriously considered making a feature-length motion picture based on Smith and Carlos's story. In 1988 the image of Smith and Carlos was prominently placed in a special Time magazine retrospective issue called "1968: The Year That Shaped a Generation," and many of that small cottage industry of books on the 1960s have given it prominent treatment as well.

Home Box Office (HBO) Films eventually did produce the widely publicized Fists of Freedom documentary (1999), but this was long after Kenny Moore's landmark feature on the story behind the image supplied the backdrop and promotional vehicle for a two-part Sports Illustrated cover story, "The Black Athlete," in the summer of 1991. The twenty-fifth anniversary of the demonstration in 1993 occasioned a nationwide series of retrospective stories and commentaries. Said one writer, "[it was] the most significant athletic image of my sports life ... I recall the black, gloved fists as if they were raised yesterday."

Smith and Carlos's demonstration subsequently served as a touchstone for public reporting of events ranging from the USOC's "Tonya Harding dilemma" during the 1994 Winter Olympics to George Foreman's unlikely return to professional boxing (and eventual heavyweight championship) and O. J. Simpson's infamous double-murder trial. Since then the picture has appeared on the cover of a special issue of the academic journal Race and Class, was featured in a controversial European advertising campaign (juxtaposed next to duck-stepping Nazi soldiers), and was ranked among TV Guide's one hundred most memorable moments in television history (number thirty-eight to be precise). The memory of Smith and Carlos figured in John Berendt's account of African American tastes in hard liquor in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994, p. 319), and in the new millennium the image served as the focal point of a pivotal scene in the feel-good Hollywood picture Remember the Titans. My own surveys and interviews indicate that even those who claim to care nothing for sports and/or know nothing about the image itself-men and women alike-often experience strong emotional reactions to it. Although it is received enthusiastically these days, in more than one library I have come across documents pertaining to Smith and Carlos or their demonstration that have been defaced or purged entirely.

No Olympic anthology, history of sport in the United States, or treatment of the African American athlete seems complete without some acknowledgment of Smith and Carlos's demonstration, and Jim Riordan and Arnd Kruger's recent (1999) volume on the international politics of twentieth-century sport is graced by a picture of the demonstration on its cover. A surprising number of sports biographies and autobiographies devote some sustained attention to the episode. Virtually all 1968 Olympic alumni-white or black, male or female-are eventually coerced or compelled to discuss their views on the episode because, as one 1968 Olympian told me, "their protest is the 1968 Olympics for most Americans." But it is probably Smith and Carlos's African American male teammates who understand this best. Speaking in 1991, Jimmy Hines, the 100-meter gold medalist in Mexico City, sighed: "I've done maybe a thousand speaking engagements and after each I've had the question: 'Were you the ones ...? The ones who ...?' I guess that's forever."

Each of these references, contexts, and anecdotes constitutes a portion of what the sociologist Wendy Griswold (1994) might describe as the social significance embodied in this cultural form. Despite its prominence and power as an object of meaning and collective memory, however, most Americans "know" little more than the image itself. Typically the picture of the two athletes is displayed (or the image rhetorically appropriated) without any critical commentary or explanation, as if its significance were wholly self-sufficient or self-evident, a picture worth literally a thousand words. One striking such example can be found in William O'Neil's (1978) widely read "informal history" of 1960s America. In one of the two photograph galleries that supplement the text is a picture of Smith and Carlos on the victory stand. It is presented under the caption "A Black Power salute at the Olympics, 1968," and yet, incredibly, no further reference to the image can be found in the entire book-not in the chapters involving black power, not in the discussion of the year 1968 itself, not even in the section devoted specifically to the decade's sporting events. Similarly, K. Sue Jewell's more recent book on the role of cultural images in the construction of American public policy, From Mammy to Miss America and Beyond (1993), features visual cues to Smith and Carlos on its cover that are not touched upon in any way in the text itself. Even Riordan and Kruger's recent volume on the international politics of sport, which has the image on its cover, contains only two scant references to the demonstration itself (one of which is historically inaccurate).


Excerpted from Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete by Douglas Hartmann Copyright © 2003 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Douglas Hartmann is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. He is coauthor of Ethnicity and Race: Making Identities in a Changing World.

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